Cory Doctorow gets Intellectual Property terribly wrong

What’s that greenish haze wafting silent-but-deadly over anon hill? It’s the stink of pseudo-intellectual midnight jam sessions posing as policy prescriptions.

In the same way that libertarians boil all practical reality out of politics and economics and reduce it down to one or two mindless soundbites, Cory Doctorow, with Mathew Ingram in tow, takes intellectual property law and leaves us with naught but smelly air. What Cory is doing, of course, is responding to the popular angst over “fair use” and mashups in particular. He’s not really talking about intellectual property per sé; he’s really concerned about copyright and trademark law. In his Guardian piece from last week, he writes:

Most of all, [knowledge] is not inherently “exclusive”. If you trespass on my flat, I can throw you out (exclude you from my home). If you steal my car, I can take it back (exclude you from my car). But once you know my song, once you read my book, once you see my movie, it leaves my control. Short of a round of electroconvulsive therapy, I can’t get you to un-know the sentences you’ve just read here.

What about trade secrets? If I invent a bulletproof stock-picking algorithm that returns 100% year over year, it darn well is exclusive to me. Nobody has an interest in my stock-picking algorithm except me. The investors who sign up with my hedge fund don’t have an interest in the intellectual property; what they have is a risk/reward contract for the use of their money. If I share it under NDA with a few key employees or partners, who then sell it to Goldman Sachs for a boatload of golden guineas, have I not been harmed?


Trying to shoehorn knowledge into the “property” metaphor leaves us without the flexibility and nuance that a true knowledge rights regime would have.

Actually, Cory is trying to take all the flexibility and nuance OUT of the system, which has been slowly and painstakingly built up over the years using actual people as test cases. Case law IS nuance. You will probably not find a more nuanced set of discussions anywhere in public life than in the Supreme Court of the United States.

Cory wants a magic wand, but there is (unfortunately?) no one-size-fits-all solution to these painful and often bitter disputes over intellectual property, which is why we fall back on a larger philosophy: the rule of law. Law give us the final answers in particular cases in ways that Philosophy 101 pronouncements on knowledge can’t.

This topic floats along in a larger river of much more interesting theoretical arguments, ones about absolutism and relativism. Pithy quotes like “knowledge wants to be free” may be true in one sense, but to what extent are they absolute or “true”? This is the big world we live in – the world of competing interests that Cory writes about. This big world lays all sorts of traps for the absolutist in each of us, which is why I personally believe in the philosophy of relative truth.

I’ll leave with two favorite quotes that apply:

A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.
– Ralph Waldo Emerson

Do I contradict myself?
Very well then I contradict myself,
(I am large, I contain multitudes.)
– Walt Whitman

(h/t Mathew Ingram)


2 Responses to “Cory Doctorow gets Intellectual Property terribly wrong”

  1. 1 Mathew Ingram February 27, 2008 at 8:11 pm

    Anthony, I think you’re misrepresenting Cory’s position somewhat. He’s not saying that all information has to be free, or that copyright or patents or trademarks shouldn’t exist — let’s face it, that’s absurd. All I think he’s saying is that the way those laws are currently interpreted is weighted too far in the direction of ownership and property, rather than a balanced set of equal rights.

  2. 2 Anthony Stevens February 27, 2008 at 8:38 pm

    Mathew: I actually agree 100% with what you wrote in your comment just above. However, I don’t think that’s what Cory wrote. He acknowledges in the last line of his essay that there are “relative interests” but doesn’t, in my mind, ever get to the sort of balanced argument that you are presenting here.

    Maybe he was just setting up a straw many thought-argument. But his rhetoric was (as I say) absolutist.

    Thanks for commenting!

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